I recently discovered Carlo Rovelli’s book Reality Is Not What It Seems: The Journey to Quantum Gravity. This was among the big sellers at Waterstones, and I soon discovered why. Rovelli is very good at communicating ‘difficult’ scientific ideas. His subject matter is physics, that most basic of sciences, and this book gives a good overview of the implications of the current thinking of some physicists.
His story begins with the Ancient Greeks and particularly Democritus and his atomism, the essential granular quality of the universe. Although no work of Democritus survived, the essential ideas were rediscovered at the time of the Renaissance, ultimately inspiring Isaac Newton and his model of the existence of particles in space and time, and of forces between them, action at a distance, what became known as gravity.
The next great step was the ‘discovery’ of electric and magnetic fields between particles by Faraday and Maxwell.
With his special theory of relativity in 1905, Einstein brought together space and time, into space-time, and in 1915 his general relativity further integrated spacetime with fields, as covariant fields.
The amazing story of quantum mechanics, developed by many collaborators including Planck, Heisenberg and Dirac, then simplified the physicists’ model of the universe to two things: Spacetime and Quantum fields. And then the ultimate aim of Quantum gravity is to reduce this to just one building block of the whole universe – Covariant quantum fields.
Yes it’s a great story and well worth reading for insight into where the physicists are at, but without the incomprehensible (to most people) maths that lies behind it.
But always remember this. It’s only a model; it’s not reality. And the model doesn’t really understand the interiority of things, life, consciousness, the mystery of existence… i.e. most of what’s important.
I love Mekhi and Joe’s posts on physics on the blog Rationalising the Universe, which brings me more up to date on the enthusiasms for mathematics, physics and cosmology of my youth. But I had to take issue with the conclusion of the recent interesting post on What is a Field, which ended with the following statement:
There we have it, space is no longer a separate entity, space is a field and the universe now consists of fields and particles alone.
That’s exciting. Newton set the ball rolling on mathematical models of the universe, and the current mathematical model of the universe has now simplified to just fields and particles.
But look at the statement again. It says “the universe now consists of…”. Well actually it doesn’t, and I suggest that we still have little idea of ‘what the universe consists of’. But we do have a great model that explains what we see and can measure in a reasonably consistent manner.
The point is
“The map is not the territory”
Alfred Korzybski, 1931
Featured image from the blog Rationalising the Universe
Alert readers of this blog may have realised that I am reading Henri Bortoft’s book Taking Appearance Seriously: The Dynamic Way of Seeing in Goethe and European Thought. Bortoft throws interesting insight into the role of Isaac Newton in creating the modern scientific world, confirming Edi Bilimoria’s article mentioned in an earlier post.
Isaac Newton basically invented modern mathematical physics in his masterwork, Principia Mathematica (1687). To the theory of atomism and mechanical philosophy he added the notion of forces which act between bodies that are not in contact.
Bortoft suggests that from the eighteenth century onwards, gravity began to be thought of as a ‘property of matter’, as if it were an attractive force inherent to matter. This is not what Newton thought. He did not believe in attraction as a real, physical, force.
For example, in a letter Newton said:
Pray do not ascribe that notion to me, for the cause of gravity is what I do not pretend to know and therefore would take more time to consider of it… Gravity must be caused by an agent acting constantly according to certain laws, but whether this agent be material or immaterial I have left to the consideration of my readers.
So Newton’s major discovery was to the effect that we could create mathematical models of the real world, what we now call ‘physics’. Subsequent founders of modern science were dedicated to the mathematical approach to nature, but ultimately the ascendancy of the mathematical was accompanied by the downgrading of the sensory and increasingly seeing the world as a mathematical abstraction. To many scientists the world became de-spiritualised and dead.
This was not Newton’s intention, although his name is often invoked as the originator of such a viewpoint.
Isaac Newton is generally seen as a key founder of modern science, via his major work Principia Mathematica and theory of gravity – which led on to the theory of the ‘clockwork universe’ and much of the modern materialist/atheistic world view.
Newton was indeed a great polymath. What is less known is that his work was inspired by his studies of religion and mysticism, which were at least as important to him as the natural sciences. The idea of a clockwork universe would have been anathema to Newton, as would the idea of atheism.
Interestingly, Newton’s gravity and its attraction were ‘a purely mathematical concept involving no consideration of real and primary physical or mechanical causes’ – which is why his book is about ‘mathematics’ and not ‘mechanics’.
As Edi explains, Newton’s religious ideas were well developed and have little in common with the Christianity of the time, being more related to the view that God is everywhere immanent and transcendent. Quoting Newton himself:
[God] endures forever , and is everywhere present; and by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space. In him are all things contained and moved…
Of course, many modern scientists have come to a similar viewpoint on the importance of religion. For example, that more modern polymath Albert Einstein:
“Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.”
There is an increasingly frequently told tale of the vicissitudes in the development of human consciousness over historic times, of the loss and reconnection with an understanding of who we are and our place in the scheme of things, of the golden thread that runs through history, of the recovery of balance in the human psyche, of the various periods of renaissance of the highest spirit of humanity…
Gary Lachman is an able storyteller. In his book The Secret Teachers of the Western World he tells this tale, giving pictures of the significance of many key actors along the way – the secret teachers. To my mind this story of the polarity of movement of humanity between the extremes of darkness and renaissance is of utmost significance, particularly given the dark times that threaten.